In light of the day’s events, we are republishing Manasseh’s Jan. 2020 interview with Hilaree Nelson.
Chamonix, expedition gear, tips from a ski mountaineer career
Hilaree Nelson is surprisingly approachable. She’s skied big peaks around the world, was named National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year in 2018 and heads up the North Face athlete team, but she’s just as happy talking about her kids as she is discussing her preparation steps for an 8000 meter ski descent. We first met on a casual skin up Aspen Mountain and after chit chatting about the lack of early snow in her hometown of Telluride and brushing over some of the more well known details of her and Jim Morrison’s Lhotse descent, I was eager to glean some wisdom from one of the strongest women in the game.
So, I called her up to talk about skiing, in particular the evolution of her ski mountaineering career over the years. We touch on early days in Chamonix, career highlights, big things she’s learned and her ever-evolving approach to expedition gear and planning. And snacks, of course.
WS: How did you start ski mountaineering?
HN: I got into it while at Colorado College where I fell in with a group of friends who were rock climbers and skiers. I slowly started trying to climb and ski fourteeners around Colorado Springs, especially Pike’s Peak. My first big ski mountaineering trip was a guided climb up Mt. Rainier when I was 22 that my parents got me as a graduation present. I ended up skiing three-quarters of Rainier on the way down. I loved it. Pretty quickly after that I moved to Chamonix.
WS: Were you working there?
HN: I was definitely being very creative in my working. I did a lot of ski modeling with some rad one-piece Bogner suits. I was doing the extreme comp races and making money. I would guide in the summer for Butterfield and Robinson bike tours in Central France. I just pieced it all together. The first winter I was there was with my two best girlfriends. The three of us rented this huge chalet, kind of by accident and we spend the whole winter running it kind of as a hostel and managed to make money on it, live rent free and meet a lot of people. That really was the start.
WS: What are some of your memorable expeditions during the years of ski mountaineering since then?
HN: My first trip to India in 2001 because I was so new to everything. I’d never winter camped, never been in a helicopter. I was with Jeremy Nobis, who I really looked up to at that point as an Olympic athlete and incredible big mountain skier. Another amazing part of that trip is that it was part of this three-film series for North Face that aired on NBC. The person that basically hired me to be on the expedition organized the whole trip and was on it climbing, was doing a lot of the filming and orchestrating all the guides and everything was a woman. Which was, I mean is still, unheard of even today. So for that, I was just like whoa, who is this woman? Melissa McManess. I think it was a really unique start to a long career to have a woman hire me, be on the trip and do all the climbing, skiing, production, everything.
A couple other memorable trips include an all-women expedition to the five holy peaks in the Altai mountains in Mongolia. Melissa was on that too. Then a trip to the isle of the south of Georgia with Doug Stout for Warren Miller. We took a sailboat across the Scotia sea and spent a month on this island just getting hammered. And then I started getting into 8000 meter peaks in 2005 and that started with Cho Oyu and high altitude stuff just kind of followed from there.
WS: How did you get involved with people that you were going on with these expeditions with, especially in the earlier days?
HN: A big part of it was that I lived in Chamonix. I feel like everybody that had anything to do with ski mountaineering passed through there at one time or another. I remember meeting Kasha Rigby in the laundry mat. We hit it off and the next thing we knew, literally a couple weeks later, right after I’d gotten back from that expedition in India, we went to Elbrus. On that trip we met this other girl Victoria Jameson who was a snowboarder and we all just did a ton of stuff together.
One of my most memorable trips that really pushed my boundaries started in Chamonix. We climbed the Mount Blanc and skied the north face. Then we went rock climbing all the next day and decided we were going to ski the Marinelli. We started at midnight and ski toured from Zermatt to the top of the Monte Rosa, slept for two hours in the hut up there and then skied the Marinelli Couloir. Victoria was the first woman to snowboard it.
You know, we were in our twenties. I could just say yes to everything and didn’t have obligations. I lived in a closet and it was great.
WS: What are some of the main major considerations you think about before deciding to pursue a big objective these days?
HN: That has changed a lot over the years. Speaking in the present, I have to be much more particular about what attracts me to an expedition. The things that draw me to an objective are the aesthetic attraction of the line, and I really like some sort of first to be involved in it. If it’s not a first, it’s something I tried before and didn’t succeed and was really enamored with it and wanted to try again. I like high altitude. I like really big, hard objectives. The team always draws me in. It’s a big deal whether I’m planning the expedition or I’m being asked to go on it. Unlike in my twenties, I have a lot of commitments outside of expeditions. Also important is the length that it’s going to take, how much training is going to go into it and how long I’ll be away from home. The longer I’m away from home, like Lhotse for example, the more obsessed I have to be with the objective.
WS: You and Jim Morrison are heading to Antarctica soon. Do you have any other expeditions on the mind after that?
HN: Antarctica is a great one as for why I want to go there because I’ve never had a chance. Nothing else is solid but I have a strong desire to go back to the Himalaya for another 8000 meter ski line. I’m not totally sure when or if that’s going to happen.
WS: What attracts you to those 8000-meter peaks?
HN: They’re just so unique in how they challenge me — physically, the pace, the beauty. I often describe it as a thinness between reality and something else that draws me back to test myself physically and mentally. My body adapts and does pretty well. Everything is really thin and you’re really on the edge. I love it. The sun feels so close. You live in this black and white atmosphere for weeks on end. You get into this survival mode and have to rely on your technique, your skillset, your resiliency.
WS: What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned over the course of your ski mountaineering career?
HN: Never think you know everything. That just gets you in a lot of trouble, and plus then you close yourself off to updating your knowledge base. Something I learned 20 years ago when I was climbing with Joe Schmoe in the Alps isn’t necessarily the most effective way to climb today. So much has changed. Equipment has changed. Style of knots and ropes. Everything is evolving all the time. So I think that’s the most important thing: to not be rigid and to be open to learning and listening.
WS: How has your approach to gear evolved as you’ve pursued bigger objectives?
HN: I think I started out with the huge pack that has pots and pans hanging off of it, you know, with crampons are swinging off the bottom. Now I feel like if I’m filling a 55 Liter pack I’ve got too much stuff. It’s just evolved to really understanding what you can get by with and trying to maximize the fast and light. Single wall tents, efficient, shorter ropes. For the Cassin Ridge, which Jim and I didn’t ski but we climbed, we had a handful of cams and 50 meter rope. That was a little on the extreme side but that’s where I’m going in terms of how that’s changing for me.
When I went to Everest in 2012, I was there for 10 weeks. Then compare that to going to Lhotse, five weeks. So cutting trips down to shorter time frames. Gear is the same. Cutting it down. Skis are lighter, bindings are lighter. It’s just taking advantage of what the technology is offering.
WS: Do you have a particular ski set up that you like to go to for expeditions?
HN: Most of my expeditions at least over the last couple years have been big, remote and high altitude, so my kit has been fairly consistent. I always take skis that are a little skinnier and shorter than what I would wear for just a day ski tour at home. I go from like a 178 or 180 that’s 105-112 underfoot, to a 171 ski that’s like a 95 underfoot. The boots have really changed. For a while I was going down to more minimal one or two buckle boots but I went to Lhotse on those Tecnica Zero G 4-buckle boots which was a big deviation from the direction I was going. But they’re so lightweight. I just went with the stock liner and they were awesome. So that’s kind of my new go-to boot whether I’m touring for the day or I’m on a big expedition.
I will size up for a big expedition that I know is going to be cold. I wear a 24.5 when I’m just skiing at home and I wear a 25.5 when I’m skiing on big mountains. Both for increased circulation and so I can have better footbeds in there to protect against cold. I use Lenz heated socks. Sometimes I even double down with the Hotronic footbed and the Lenz sock. I’m really avid about not having my feet get cold because then that’s the end of the expedition. Knock on wood I’ve never had frost bite, and I hope I never do. It’s also easier to get your foot in and out of a bigger boot when your shell is frozen.
Same goes for the binding. I took the Dynafit Superlite 2.0 to Lhotse, no brakes, minimal riser. I prefer full metal construction if possible for bindings in that kind of environment. It’s just so brutally cold and windy and conditions change so much that I want something that’s foolproof.
WS: What advice do you offer to aspiring ski mountaineers?
HN: Always bring a pee bottle. Seriously. You’ll save yourself a lot of angst. I also like to keep a cotton t-shirt and warm fuzzy pair of socks in my sleeping bag to put on at night just to have something that is comfortable, smells good and makes me feel a little less gross.
I try hard to eat real food for snacks: nuts, salami, cheese, whatever that means to you. It gives you so much more real energy. I like having dark chocolate or tamari almonds. A PBJ goes a really long way. Ingrid Backstrom taught me on Baffin Island to make these peanut butter and honey balls. They’re the size of a golf ball and you can take them in your backpack and chew on them as the day goes on.
Also, really know your gear so you’re not trying to figure it out when you’re in some compromised or scary place. That is so important and good for your mental wellbeing. I feel like females especially are always worried about not keeping up or being last. It gave me a lot of confidence that if I knew my gear really well, I could rip my skins fast, switch from skis to crampons and start out ahead of everybody. That’s how I have kept up with the guys, if you will. All of that keeps you feeling like you’re in the right place.
Check out HilareeNelson.com for more.
Manasseh Franklin is a writer, editor and big fan of walking uphill. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction and environment and natural resources from the University of Wyoming and especially enjoys writing about glaciers. Find her other work in Alpinist, Adventure Journal, Rock and Ice, Aspen Sojourner, AFAR, Trail Runner and Western Confluence.